America's Top Guns on Front Line Against Iraq

On watch with the 3-69 tank battalion, now positioned to redraw the Gulf War's 'line in the sand.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A line of American tanks faces northwest, directly into a stiff wind blowing hard out of Iraq.

Their guns are silent. But United States Army commanders here hope that - if diplomats bog down over varying interpretations of the weapons-inspection agreement brokered last month by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan - the very presence of these tanks will remind Saddam Hussein that it would be a big mistake for Iraq to defy the United Nations again, let alone attempt to move on its neighbors.

The threat of airstrikes on Baghdad may have been the primary persuader in getting Iraq to the table. But ground units like this one - in the desert less than 25 miles from Iraqi territory - represent the legacy of the "line in the sand" drawn by President Bush in 1991.

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It was these same M1A1 Abrams tanks that destroyed hundreds of Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers seven years ago in some of the largest, most one-sided battles ever waged in the history of tank warfare.

Roughly 100 US tanks currently are deployed in Kuwait. They are an important link in the overall US military buildup in recent weeks that includes nearly 5,000 ground troops in Kuwait and 30 US warships in the Persian Gulf.

The military forces are also available, if necessary, to punish Saddam should he fail to cooperate fully with UN inspectors searching for outlawed weapons of mass destruction.

When the 3-69 tank battalion based in Fort Stewart, Ga., got its orders mid-February to head to Kuwait, it was nothing new, says the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Mike Altomare. "We are America's 911 if a conflict breaks out anywhere," he says.

They've been here before

In 1994, when Saddam massed six divisions of tanks and infantry on the Kuwaiti border, the 3-69 was among those first to arrive during a fast counterdeployment. Last November, the battalion showed its stuff during multinational military exercises in Egypt. It recently completed a stint at the Army's National Training Center in California's Mojave Desert.

Soldiers with the battalion widely assume that a conflict with Saddam is just a matter of time. "Being trained and ready, we are at our peak," says Capt. Robert Ashe of Albany, Ga. "No one hopes for combat, but there are no concerns about our readiness. It's our business."

The soldiers have spent hundreds of hours of preparation, honing skills and developing a high level of teamwork necessary to succeed under even the worst battlefield conditions.

"I was kind of looking forward to seeing what we could actually do in combat," says Pvt. Jason Langley, a tank driver from Huntsville, Texas.

If recent gunnery scores are any indication, the 3-69 may be the best tank battalion in the Army, and perhaps the finest in the US military. In live-firing tests last month, five tank crews in the battalion received perfect 1,000-point scores. Most battalions would feel honored if one crew scored 1,000.

In recognition of their accomplishment, crew members receive a much-coveted bronze belt buckle with the battalion's motto: "Speed and Power." The buckle is described as the tank-crew equivalent of a Super Bowl ring. That motto is an apt description of the capabilities of the 67-ton, $2.8 million M1 tank.

One of those perfect crews is commanded by Sgt. 1st Class Robert Keel of Pittsburgh. He says the key to a perfect score in gunnery is teamwork.

An M1 crew consists of four soldiers: a driver, a loader, a gunner, and the tank commander.

Sergeant Keel's driver is Private Langley. The driver's job is not only to move the tank quickly (up to 40 m.p.h.) over difficult terrain, but also to move it steadily while the gunner and commander are attempting to find and destroy enemy tanks as far as two miles away. He says optimal combat speed is about 10 m.p.h., being careful not to force the tank's automatic transmission to shift into a higher or lower gear at the moment of firing.

Teamwork and speed

Loading shells into the tank's main gun is also a critical aspect of a tank crew's teamwork. Spc. Chester Foster, of Macon, Ga., is one of the fastest loaders in the Army, capable of pulling a 40-pound live shell out of the tank's magazine, placing it into the breach, closing the breach, removing the spent shell casing after firing, and placing a new shell into the breach within 3 seconds. In contrast, the automatic loaders in Iraqi T-72s are known to take from 7 to 10 seconds to perform the same tasks.

A third critical skill needed to wage tank warfare is that of the gunner. Sgt. James Floyd of Mills, Pa., is Keel's gunner. Sergeant Floyd says his job is a lot like playing Nintendo. In fact, his trigger system looks like a steel version of the same controls used in the popular video game

But Floyd is under no illusion about the seriousness of his mission. "When I'm out there, I'm not thinking video game," he says. Instead, he is concentrating on using the tank's thermal imaging sensors to identify and kill enemy tanks. A Iraqi T-72 has an effective range of about 1,800 yards, while an M1's range is nearly twice that.

Colonel Altomare insists on a level of speed across the battlefield that other commanders might consider risky. To Altomare, offense is always the best defense. "I don't care about your tactics," he says, referring to the Iraqis, "because I am going to surprise you."

Altomare's description of the perfect tank battle: The enemy never sees a US tank, only the flash of the M1's muzzle. By then the battle will be over.

Rusting reminders

On the southern fringe of Kuwait City sit row after row of twisted and burned out Iraqi tanks, artillery pieces, and armored personnel carriers. Even seven years after Desert Storm, these rusting hulks tell a tale of unimaginable violence.

Steel tank treads are bent and twisted like rubber bands and inch-thick plating is punched open like a pencil through tin foil.

Kuwaiti officials try to discourage journalists from visiting the so-called graveyard of Iraqi tanks, in part out of concern for unexploded ordnance. But there is no better illustration of exactly how outgunned the Iraqis would be on a desert battlefield in 1998.

Recently, the Kuwaitis sold the mass of destroyed military equipment to a scrap dealer. It remains unclear how soon the lot will be vacant. But one thing is clear: Today at least one battalion of American soldiers is more than ready to fill the lot with destroyed Iraqi tanks again.

And that, US and Kuwaiti commanders hope, is the essence of deterrence.

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